Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Composition: First Person Point of View (POV)

Welcome back.
I have decided to break up a discussion about First Person Point of View into three parts.  For now,
I have included some screen grabbed examples from two films.  These two scenes from Chicken Run (2000) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) display basic and easy to understand examples of  POV (Point of View) with attention to First Person. I don't mean POV like a FPS as in this screen shot from Halo:
Although shots like this are a big part of establishing a first person feeling, there is a lot more to replacing the camera with the eyes of the character. Let's begin with...
I really love this film from directors Nick Park and Peter Lord and directors of photography, Tristan Oliver and Frank Passingham and (more importantly) all of the animators, artists and technicians who helped to create this fantastic comedy about chickens plotting to escape the chicken farm where they are being held in the style of the famous "escape" movies like the "Great Escape".  "Mrs. Tweedy, the chickens are revolting!"
After the opening title sequence, we open and dolly in on the coal shed Ginger (the true hero of the story) has been thrown in, "No chicken escapes from TWEEDY'S FARM!" Notice the steps at left, those are there for human scale and immediately you know the camera is lower than your typical human eye-level.  Coal bins aren't very big and Ginger, a chicken, is inside.  Whether you notice it or not, you are being brought into the 'chicken world' so we can see things from their point of view.
 Ginger throws a turnip off the wall of the bin in a fun nod to Steve McQueen's tennis ball. Notice the horizon line passes through ginger's eyes as shown below.
Ginger looks up and we cut to Ginger's view of coal bin door opening revealing Mr. Tweedy's boots, Ginger's time in solitary is over.
Cut to Ginger being given the boot to go back in chicken coop.  Again, horizon is low and only Mr. Tweedy's leg and foot need to be in shot.
Ginger looks up and cut to Ginger's view of  Babs. "...back from holiday?" Dolly in.
Cut to Babs and Ginger:
"I wasn't on holiday, I was in solitary confinement."
"Oh it's nice to get a little time to yourself, isn't it?"
Their conversation is interrupted by the 'attention' bell.  Great up shot at the ringing bells, continuing the suggested view point of the chickens.
Cut to Fowler on a roof.  "Roll Call!"  We break from Ginger's POV here but the first person feel is not broken because this bit is about all the chickens and what they have to go through in the coop.
 Camera goes low as the chickens panic to get in line.
We cut to Bunty making room for Ginger and Babs by butt-bumping the chicken on the left.
Ginger enters the shot and we see we have reestablished her POV.
Notice the horizon line is shared with Ginger's eye line below.
Don't believe me? Look at how everything recedes to her horizon line. See? Perspective helps to describe the POV.
Cut to Fowler spouting off about his "RAF days" as he strolls the line almost inspecting the troops.
As Bunty tells him to "Give over" cut to Fowler, he is aghast, "How dare you? Talk back to a senior ranking officer..." Low horizon line continues.
He continues to admonish Bunty, distracted from the real threat, the antagonist who is Mrs. Tweedy. Cut to: Mrs. Tweedy stepping down from inside the porch.  With a horizon line so low, we only see her boots and the hem of her skirt.  She instantly has tremendous power and her entrance shifts the comedic feeling to a darker tone.
Cut to Ginger who tells Fowler to get in line. Once again, the horizon and thus the POV is her's.
Fowler does just that, and bumps the chicken on the left (she falls again)
Cut to: Mrs. Tweedy stepping to the coop.
"There will be a stern reprimand for you lad, you're grounded..." Despite the humor in the script, we start to feel the genuine fear that the approaching Missus Tweedy imparts.
Cut to the gate opening.  Look at the details in that fence! If you haven't seen this film, see it for this at least!  Every shot is full of thoughtful design and planning.
"Atten-tion!" still on Ginger's POV.
Mrs. Tweedy enters the yard, towering over the chickens in line.  Still on Ginger's horizon line.
Cut to Ginger and Mac "Welcome back, is there a new plan?" Because of the low camera set up, and the shots prior, this feels natural to see the chickens speaking to eachother.
A quick cut to Mrs Tweedy looming overhead. The editing here feels good, like kids trying to chat while the teacher or authority figure walks by.
Cut to an insert of Ginger's hand offering Mac a note..
Followed by a MCU of Ginger and Mac trying to play off nonchalance.
But the threat of Mrs. Tweedy is very real.
Still at Ginger's POV, now in a up shot.  Mrs. Tweedy in near center and owns the scene as shown below. the grid suggests the low angle perspective.
Everyone reacts to the snap of the glove. Back down to Eye Ranking Level of Ginger.
Cut to: Mrs. tweedy walking off...
...blocking the sun from Ginger.
Cut to Ginger and Mac, still keeping it lighthearted. "I thought we tried going under...Oh over, right."
Now we are at the meat of this scene.  Cut away from Ginger's POV to reveal a clipboard being handed to Mrs. Tweedy. We get a quick look at the words, "Egg Production Record".
But back to an up shot of Mrs. Tweedy as she reviews the numbers.
Cut again to the low ERL of Ginger as Mrs. Tweedy stalks back.
Cut to: LA the chickens watch in fear as Mrs. Tweedy passes.  The sound design here is fantastic!
Still ERL with Ginger as she asks Bunty about the egg count.
Cut to: Mrs. Tweedy's point of view of the clipboard.  This is an obvious break from Ginger's POV/ERL but in this case it works because there is not cut back to a view of Mrs. Tweedy reading the notes. This helps to build suspense.  What is Mrs. Tweedy looking for, why? We get the idea that the chickens already know and it's a terrible, frightening thing.
Cut to: the boots whooshing down the line. Still low with the fearful chickens.
Cut again to the clip board, and now we see the result of Mrs. Tweedy's search. Chicken 282 is egg-less for at least five days. The clipboard moves down to reveal the terrified Edwina. Even the score here works perfectly.
Mrs. Tweedy in CU centered up shot, sneers at her intended.  She is in complete control, an antagonist of true proportion.
ERL Ginger, as she asks why Bunty didn't give Edwina some eggs . The humorous quips fade and panic is heard in the dialogue. "She didn't tell anybody." This announces to the audience that despite the silliness, there is really a dire situation at stake, causing characters to loose hope.
Down shot on Edwina trembling in fear. This acts as the hopeless 'look to the heavens' shot.
Up shot on Mr. Tweedy, he grabs poor Edwina. Even the sky is cloudy and looks almost ready to drop rain.
ERL on the chickens as Edwina is carried off.
To offset the drama, Babs inquires, "Oh, Is Edwina on holiday?" Also a throwback to the start of the scene and to establish Babs's character.
Camera still at Ginger's ERL as the Tweedy's head to the shed. The red gloved hand against the green door is the brightest element in the composition.
Cut to Ginger, having stepped away from the group to get a better view. the camera is slightly below Ginger's eye line here, to show the hopelessness but also to offer Ginger as a possible 'savior'.
Mrs. Tweedy takes Edwina, she does the dirty work, she is the villain. 
Camera stays ERL with Ginger as shown.
Back to Ginger, she has fully grasped the horror which is about to take place.
Closer now, but still low on Mrs. Tweedy, the axe is revealed in the shadows.
Cut to: Ginger who has climbed to the roof of the hen house to get a better view and for another reason (which I'll get to to shortly)
Jump cut in on Ginger as she watches Edwina's last moments to heighten the drama.
The camera tilts up slightly on the shadow of Mrs. Tweedy and the axe. hate to geek out here, but this composition is well conceived. The main elements all seem o point down, the bucket at left, the pipe comes to a dead end after a vertical, a bar or pole leaning against the wall at right stops the action and holds in while the chart graphs downward. Edwina, stops here.
Back to Ginger, who is sad for Edwina but is also fearing for the lives of her comrades. Why is she up there again?
So we can motivate to the chickens below who react sadly to sound of the axe falling, that's why.
This angle gives the impression of a group of completely powerless creatures while also letting us in on Ginger's thoughts.  They will all share Edwina's fate if Ginger fails them.
Back to Ginger as she turns away.
Low angle representing the viewpoint of the chickens on the ground (suggesting the empowerment of Ginger-she has to do something and soon) while bringing us low with the mood of the end of this scene. We feel what Ginger is feeling because of the shot setups above. We can relate to being in ahopeless situation, we have seen our friends in trouble, we understand and empathize.  This is a solid first person scene.
Close in on Ginger slight up angle. We see her shed tears for her friends both living and dead. She looks up at the sound of geese flying overhead.
OTS Ginger as she watches them fly freely to safety.  Fly to safety...that's the premise of the film.
(Sniffle) Is someone cutting onions or is it dusty in here? (Sniff) Bet you weren't expecting an animated movie to get so dark, huh?  Guess what? They do, probably better than a lot of live action movies, so much heart is poured into the making of these films.

Speaking of not expecting so much depth from a movie.  What about a super hero movie?  Next up is a movie I didn't expect to get very deep but it did its best to and that made watching this so much more enjoyable.
Yep.  Spider-Man 2 from 2004 (not the new one, I don't get out to the movies as much now that I'm a dad).  When super hero movies get dark, they tend to take on a preachy or heavy handed approach and fans of this genre get turned off by this. Heroes should be strong and fight stuff and help people while other stuff blows up and the day is saved at the end. The popularity of Spider-Man comes from the every-man feeling of Peter Parker.  He lost his parents, watched his uncle die, lives with his Aunt, has a hard time getting money, gets little respect, fights depression, and has a super hawt girlfriend. Everything the common person can relate to...wait.
Anyway, in this movie, directed by Sam Raimi and Bill Pope as director of photography, we finally get to see or experience the pain and loneliness of keeping a dangerous secret in a sequence referred to as "Pete's Confession" all set up as first person as we are directed to feel what Peter is feeling.  We see how hard it's been to carry this secret and deal with its consequences alone. In the film, May and Peter go to the cemetery to see Ben's grave, then return home as established below.  Set in middle class NY (America, look at the flags) and there is Ben's car from the first movie, but the camera is low.  Not at a typical ERL, it does give a majesty to the houses but also forces the low or down feeling created from the previous cemetery scene.
Cut to interior of May's home.  We continue a dolly in from the previous exterior on the dining room with Peter sitting with his back to the camera. We are also shown the green kitchen Peter was supposed to help paint in the first movie, a subtle reference to Ben's presence. Aunt May enters from the kitchen with a teapot.
Let's dissect this shot.  Camera is Pete's eye height. We don't know it yet but we are going to 'feel' what Peter is feeling, not just seeing.
Again, perspective is playing a large part in selling Peter's POV. The horizon line is Peter's ERL. May stands in front of the room's one point vanishing point. The house is her's and what she does with the information Peter tells her will define the next sequences of the film.
May's position also acts to trap Peter.  He is slightly off the right third, his head is surrounded by the cabinet in front of him with the white plate acting to highlight his dark hair.  Indeed, Peter's dark hair and the white plate are the highest contrasted elements in the shot. Peter has no where to go on his side and must face up to what he has to tell May.
Aunt May, on the other hand, is staged more openly. She has the ability to move in many directions, there is more "daylight" shining in on her side.  The whole of the left side of the frame is lighter in contrast to the darker right side, held together with the placement of Peter's dark jacket on the couch.
Cut to Peter.  Finally facing toward camera, again we see him trapped.  There is a window, a possible escape, but it gets blocked by May as she sits down.  Peter feels locked in against the drab brown walls and his blue shirt.
Camera is ERL with Peter as shown below, again perspective, though limited, drives the POV
The shot continues as Peter listens to May and watches her take a seat at the table.
Cut to Aunt May as she says, "We'd all three of us be having tea together." Horizon is slightly above May, still suggesting Peter's POV.
Cut back to Peter who is working up the courage to tell Aunt May what he needs to say.  There is a long, awkward silence as Peter tries to find the words.  I guess what really caught my attention on the first viewing of this film and the viewings there after, is the time Raimi allowed his actors to make a good performance. I find this unusual for a movie of this genre.  Generally the isn't enough time for a heartfelt performance because there are explosions and car chases and boobs to dangle in front of the camera and character performance takes a backseat. The duration of this moment made me take notice.
Still more "empty" screen time and Peter hasn't said a word.  A cut back to May reveals her waiting with anticipation for Peter to say something.
Finally, as we cut back to Peter, he mumbles, "I'm responsible." and even gives a little nod for self encouragement.  A great touch.
We are motivated to see how May will respond and the camera cuts so we see her ask, "For what?"
Peter tells his story. May 'covers' the window, the walls and picture behind him act to keep him rooted to his spot.
"You were at the library, you were doing your homework." May scoffs in disbelief.
Close on Peter now, he explains that he didn't go in the library. Camera stays on his ERL. His eyes are cast low, as though he can't face May.
Closer on May as well.  She asks, "What do you mean?"
Cut back to CU Peter as he continues with the truth.  He relates the whole story of happened that night, it takes a lot of screen time. I remember sitting awestruck in the theater because of how the scene was being played out but was not surprised when early teens behind me started getting restless. Frustrated...and a little infuriated...but not surprised.
As Peter stammers out the story of Ben's death while May looks on in shock.
Peter comes to the end of his tale, "...And I held his hand, when he died." Peter finally looks up at May...
...and, the last line, "I've tried to tell you so many times." he looks down and moves his shoulder.
A cut on action and we actually see 'his' point of view, he is looking at and reaching for May's hand in an attempt to give and get comfort. As the camera tilts upward, we see May withdraw her hand.  Camera continues the move to reveal her face. She stares at him, speechless.
Cut back to Peter. He doesn't get the comfort he was hoping for and accepts the coldness of May's reaction. He is still alone.
Cut out to the dining room, May gets up, staring at Peter, she turns and leaves up the stairs. Peter is left alone to suffer his rejection and live with his demons.
Even at the end of the action, the camera lingers, holding on Peter looking at the emptiness left by his aunt.  A first person moment despite some of the third person staging between Peter and May.  We feel the weight Peter is feeling. Makes you want to walk over and soft punch his arm and say, "aw buddy, that sucks." but before you can, the scene -and moment- changes as Doc Oc makes the next shot, loud.  At least the kids behind me were happy again.
More soon, thanks for stopping by!